- Associated Press - Saturday, May 21, 2016

POWHATAN, Va. (AP) - The new museum at the Belmead mansion features a quote by the owners of the 2,200-plus-acre property, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

“Land is much more than a parcel of real estate to be used, bought, or sold. Rather it is part of the living organism called Earth on loan to us from the Creator.”

The sentiment lends irony to recent developments that have seen the Pennsylvania-based religious order place the Powhatan County mansion and surrounding property for sale, an act that could leave the rich legacy of the site on borrowed time before the property is subdivided into large parcels for high-end housing.

“This place is going to get swept away,” said Sister Maureen Carroll, who until recently was the executive director of the organization that managed the property. “And there’s only one like it.”

There’s hardly an aspect of the American story left untouched by the history of Belmead, a plantation built by Philip St. George Cocke that housed two schools - St. Emma Military Academy for boys and St. Francis de Sales High School for girls - that educated 15,000 black students from the 1890s to the early 1970s.

The schools were established by St. Katharine Drexel; her sister, Louise Drexel Morrell; and her brother-in-law, Edward Morrell. Drexel, an heiress and philanthropist who completed her religious vows in 1891, founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Black and Native American peoples and became a saint in 2000.

Even before the sale was announced May 3, Belmead on the James - including its Gothic Revival mansion built in 1845 by renowned architect Alexander Jackson Davis - was at risk in the estimation of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The organization placed the site on its list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2011.

A senior field director for the trust, Rob Nieweg, on May 12 called the site “a unique and evocative historic place which tells essential stories about our shared American heritage, especially about the importance of education and self-sufficiency to the African-American community.

“We are well aware of the good and creative efforts made by the local stewards of Belmead over recent years to protect and preserve the architecturally significant mansion and extraordinary property which surrounds it. Good progress has been made. However, the recent decision to place the property for sale on the open market may put this irreplaceable historic place in harm’s way again.”

The local stewards he speaks of are FrancisEmma Inc., which was dissolved by Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, despite raising nearly $5 million over 10 years toward the preservation and restoration of the Belmead properties.

“This piece of property encapsulates Virginia history from its very founding to its present. Where else in America can you find this all in one place?” asks Patricia Gunn, an alumna of St. Francis de Sales and a former FrancisEmma board member who also chaired its capital campaign.

The timing was especially cruel for Francis-Emma, given the opening of a new museum in the mansion two months ago, an event attended by Sen. Timothy M. Kaine.

The museum traces the property’s history from its Native American roots to African-American enslavement and empowerment, with a forward-looking focus on environmental stewardship.

The “Era of Enslavement” room lists on a wall the enslaved and freed individuals buried at Belmead Historic Cemetery, which has one engraved headstone surrounded by unmarked white crosses.

In this room, you learn that 5,282 of Powhatan’s 8,178 residents were enslaved in 1850. An 1854 inventory lists 127 names of enslaved men, women and children who lived and worked at Belmead.

The “Era of Empowerment” room focuses on the eight-decade history of the schools, while the “Environment” room details the rich ecosystem of insects, birds and plant life on the property, which overlooks the James River.

“I fell in love with it the moment I saw it,” said Gunn, a lawyer and professor at Ohio University who followed her mother and older sister to St. Francis de Sales. “We had the most excellent teachers imaginable. And we had young ladies from all over the country, and indeed, from several parts of the world, so it expanded one’s horizons intellectually and spiritually.”

She noted the audacity it took to select for this mission a site 30 miles outside the former capital of the Confederacy, 30 years after the Civil War.

“I like to think that they thought, ‘Here’s the perfect place.’ Virginia was a center of enslavement, the youngsters are going to need an education. Where better to do it than one of the most beautiful places on the face of this earth?”

Today, the mansion, an 1841 stone granary and the 1895 St. Francis de Sales building are the only major historical structures that remain on a site that once contained 40 buildings, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But Carroll, who was executive director of the dissolved FrancisEmma, is among about a half-dozen sisters devoted to the preservation effort.

Gunn said the property was a center of social and commercial life in the county, for both blacks and whites in need of the services of its skilled craftsmen and a Catholic church to worship. Boys at St. Emma were required to earn academic, trade and military degrees. “They were preparing them to face anything in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” Gunn said.

Gunn and Carroll, among others, hope a consortium of Virginians will rally to purchase the property and preserve its history.

“We haven’t been as focused as we needed to be on telling the story, because we’ve been too busy fixing the story,” Carroll said. But now, she’s intent on getting the word out on the site’s significance before it’s too late. Ryan Heathcock was enlisted to tell the site’s story through YouTube videos.

“When I look at that campus, I see it as a place where an extraordinary social justice experiment took place,” Gunn said. “It was a place that symbolized for those of us who were there, the kind of world in which we should live. Where else in America can you find that model for social justice - the kind of model that can be used in our country today?”

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, https://www.timesdispatch.com

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